Last Updated: Wed Aug 01, 2012 07:32 am (KSA) 04:32 am (GMT)

Syria’s FSA reportedly got surface-to-air missiles, U.N. to convene over crisis

A Free Syrian Army member prepares an anti-aircraft machine gun as he gets ready for a patrol in Attarib on the outskirts of Aleppo. (Reuters)
A Free Syrian Army member prepares an anti-aircraft machine gun as he gets ready for a patrol in Attarib on the outskirts of Aleppo. (Reuters)

Rebels fighting to depose Syrian president Bashar al Assad have for the first time acquired a small supply of surface-to-air missiles, according to a news report that a Western official did not dispute, as the U.N. General Assembly said it will hold a meeting on the crisis in Syria this week.

NBC News reported Tuesday night that the rebel Free Syrian Army had obtained nearly two dozen of the weapons, which were delivered to them via neighboring Turkey, whose moderate Islamist government has been demanding Assad's departure with increasing vehemence.

Indications are that the U.S. government, which has said it opposes arming the rebels, is not responsible for the delivery of the missiles.

But some U.S. government sources have been saying for weeks that Arab governments seeking to oust Assad have been pressing for such missiles, also known as MANPADs, for man-portable air-defense systems, to be supplied to the rebels.

In recent days, air operations against the rebels by Syrian government forces appear to have been stepped up, particularly around the contested city of Aleppo, making the rebels’ need for MANPADs more urgent.

Precisely what kind of MANPADs have been delivered to Syrian rebels is unclear and NBC News did not provide details. Such weapons range from the primitive to highly sophisticated.

And even if the rebels do have the weapons, it is unclear whether they have the training to operate them effectively against Assad’s air forces in the immediate future, according to Reuters.

Some conservative U.S. lawmakers, such as Republican Senators John McCain and Lindsey Graham, have criticized the administration of President Barack Obama for moving too slowly to assist the rebels and have suggested the U.S. government become directly involved in arming Assad’s opponents.

The White House, at least until now, has taken a considerably more cautious approach.

As of last month, U.S. officials warned that if any Middle Eastern nation was “even considering giving arms to the Syrian opposition,” it ought to “take a measured approach and think twice about providing arms that could have unintended consequences.”

Nonetheless, even at that time, U.S. and allied officials acknowledged that some Arab officials were discussing whether surface-to-air missiles might help Syrian rebels bring down Russian-made helicopters and other aircraft the Syrian army was using to move troops between trouble spots.

Following the fall of Libyan leader Muammar Qaddafi, some intelligence experts estimated that as many as 10,000-15,000 MANPADs sets were looted from Libyan government stockpiles. The whereabouts of most of these are unknown.

Many U.S. officials have been wary of the notion of arming Syrian rebels with MANPADs, noting that they could be easily turned on targets other than the Syrian government, including civilian airliners.

After the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan, the CIA provided sophisticated shoulder-fired Stinger missiles to Islamic militants seeking to oust Soviet troops.

The missiles proved deadly against Soviet helicopter gunships, but subsequently became a major headache for U.S. and western counter-terrorism agencies when anti-Soviet militants morphed into anti-Western militants.

Recent intelligence and news reporting has suggested a growing number of militants, including some affiliated with al-Qaeda, have traveled to Syria to try to join anti-Assad forces. U.S. officials have said, however, that they do not believe the militants yet play a dominant role in the Syrian opposition.

Meanwhile, the U.N. General Assembly said late Tuesday it will hold a meeting on the crisis in Syria this week and diplomats say it will likely vote on a Saudi-drafted resolution that condemns the Security Council for failing to take action against Damascus.

The 193-nation assembly’s press office said the meeting on Syria’s 16-month-old conflict would occur at 10:00 a.m. EDT (1400 GMT) on Thursday.

U.N. diplomats told Reuters the assembly was expected to vote on a draft resolution that voices “grave concern at the escalation of violence in the Syrian Arab Republic, in particular the continued widespread and systematic gross violations of human rights.”

The latest draft, dated July 30, was penned by Saudi Arabia, which is openly supporting the rebel forces fighting to oust Assad.

The draft resolution would also have the assembly “expressing grave concern at the Syrian authorities’ threat to use chemical or biological weapons.” Damascus recently acknowledged having chemical arms, but said it would only use such weapons if it was attacked by foreign powers.

The assembly meeting comes after Russia and China on July 19 used their Security Council veto powers for the third time to strike down a Western-backed draft resolution that would have threatened Syrian authorities with sanctions if they failed to halt the violence.

The Saudi draft resolution would also have the assembly “deploring the Security Council failure to agree on measures to ensure the Syrian authorities’ compliance with its decisions” calling for an end to the violence. That condemnation, Western envoys say, is aimed at Moscow and Beijing.

Unlike Security Council resolutions, which can be legally binding, General Assembly resolutions are non-binding. But there are no vetoes in the assembly and only a simple majority is needed to pass them.

Western diplomats say they hope a strong majority vote in the assembly for a resolution condemning Syria and the Security Council would increase the pressure on Russia and China to stop shielding Assad from sanctions.

The Saudi resolution also reiterates the Arab League’s calls for Assad to step down and allow a political transition to a democratic government.

The draft text urges both the government forces and rebels to stop the violence, though it focuses its criticism on Assad’s government.

Syrian U.N. Ambassador Bashar Jaafari has repeatedly accused Nassir Abdul Aziz al-Nasser of Qatar, president of the General Assembly, of using his position to push the Qatari national agenda.

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